Jason Maddy, Kyle Roche, and Richard Baird in North Coast Rep’s Lion in Winter
  • Jason Maddy, Kyle Roche, and Richard Baird in North Coast Rep’s Lion in Winter
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Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, their sons Richard I and King John: mighty names, each exuding historical import. Henry II dressed like a commoner and ruled, at one point, from Scotland to the Pyrenees. His energy was boundless (they said he traveled so fast “he gave the impression of being everywhere at once”). He also ordered the death of his former friend, Thomas Becket, who became a saint.

Queen Eleanor: power, grace, beauty. She owned the Aquitaine in southwestern France and, though married to Henry for 30 years, always had an aura of intrigue and dalliance. A German poet wrote of her: “Were the world all mine/ From the sea to the Rhine/ I’d give all away/ If the English Queen/ Would be mine for a day.”

Richard I, the “Lion-Hearted,” spent most of his reign on Crusades in the Holy Land. The one time he came to England, in 1194, he joined with Robin Hood to battle cruel King John, his younger brother. As a stamp of validation for the historical Richard, Sean Connery played him in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Legends all, with reputations so secure you’d expect them to creak along encased in armor. James Goldman’s 1966 comedy-drama The Lion in Winter pries beneath the shields, swords, and chain mail. He gives us a Christmas gathering at their castle in Chinon (France). But instead of regal decorum amid boughs of holly, serious farce prevails. Eleanor shouts: “We all have knives. It’s 1183, and we’re all barbarians!”

Henry has kept Eleanor locked up for ten years. He’s let her out to celebrate the yuletide and to determine his successor: Richard, John, or Geoffrey. Henry favors John, the youngest; Eleanor has a profound attachment for Richard. And Geoffrey? He’s like an outcast on Survivor, desperate to form any alliance. What follows are power plays in which Henry and Eleanor vie for control of an empire greater than Charlemagne’s.

On the surface, the ploys and gambits resemble musical chairs, with one of the brothers always left out. But as the squabbles escalate and turn vile, it becomes clear that the bickering of this supremely dysfunctional family extends far beyond Chinon.

They’re as fickle — and lethal — as the Greek gods. When Henry asked, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” six thugs murdered Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Richard’s anger, or a whimsical aside by Henry, could mean the deaths of thousands. And did.

Thirty years ago, Olive Blakistone and the North Coast Repertory Theatre staged The Lion in Winter as part of its first season. I saw that production and must say, the NCRT has come a long way, baby! The show was across the parking lot from today’s theater. It was capably done, though a mite stiff and favoring pageantry over inner feeling. Put NCRT’s current production in that space, 30 years ago, and it would have blown North County away.

But by today’s standards, NCRT’s recent opening night was, at best, capably done. Marty Burnett’s generic set could be any castle anywhere. And the performances neither rose to majestic heights nor stooped to soap-operatics (as productions of the play often favor). It steered a middle course: in effect, a first night for the cast to get through; then, having passed that hurdle, to settle in and explore the drama and humor.

It certainly has the actors. Jason Maddy and Kyle Sorrell connive as Geoffrey and King Philip of France (Sorrell could even more; he had a Machiavellian bent and later warred with Richard and John).

The script prefers verbal pyrotechnics over developed characters. It does no favors to those playing Richard I (Richard Baird), John (Kyle Roche), and teenage Alais (Alexandra Grossi). Each is a solitary note on the playwright’s keyboard: to be struck louder or softer, depending.

Mark Pinter’s Henry II suggests the King’s colossal status with appropriate swagger but should underline his tormenting worries. Henry doesn’t want to be Lear. He believes in a proper succession but has no Cordelia to replace him. As a biographer wrote, “To him what really mattered was family politics, and he died believing that he had failed.”

Portrayals of Eleanor are often gaudy, presentational affairs. Wearing the most flattering of Renetta Lloyd’s costumes, Kandis Chappell goes inside the legend and delivers a grounded, deeply felt effort devoid of splashy eternals.

Part of the fun is trying to figure out how Henry and Eleanor actually feel about each other. Problem is, the word “love” blips through the text like a bouncing ball. Everyone utters it. But in each instance it means something different. Trying to unite the varying usages for a definition of love, it turns out, resembles trying to keep Henry’s kingdom intact. ■

The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman

North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach

Directed by Andrew Barnicle: cast: Richard Baird, Kandis Chappell, Alexandra Grossi, Jason Maddy, Mark Pinter, Kyle Sorrell, Kyle Roche; scenic design, Marty Burnett; costumes, Renetta Lloyd; lighting, Jason Bieber; sound, Chris Luessmann

Playing through February 5; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-481-1055

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